September, it seems, has put a spring in the steps of India’s Opposition leaders. Another determined bid is on to forge an Opposition alliance that can take on the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the 2024 general election. The trigger this time has been Nitish Kumar’s exit from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in August, and the Janata Dal (United) forming a government with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress in Bihar.
On September 1, Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR)visited Bihar and met Nitish and his deputy CM, the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, and called for a “BJP-mukt Bharat”. Four days later, Nitish met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi, ahead of the Congress leader leaving for his 150-day ‘Bharat Jodo’ yatra across the country. On September 8, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was heard telling partymen that a united Opposition front would be up and running before the 2024 Lok Sabha election. “The opposition parties will join hands...it will be all of us on one side, the BJP on the other. The BJP’s arrogance of 300 seats will be their nemesis,” she declared.
Meanwhile, as its Bharat Jodo yatra—aiming to build up the public mood against the ruling BJP’s allegedly divisive ways—began from Kanyakumari, the party insisted that it was not Congress’s journey alone, all Opposition forces were welcome to join in. Indeed, in Tamil Nadu, chief minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M.K. Stalin was among those who flagged off the yatra.
While the renewed talk of a grand alliance has enthused some of the Opposition parties, the electoral equations on the ground remain the same. There have already been several claimants to the leadership position, with Mamata, KCR and Nitish fashioning themselves as prime minister material. However, before they get to who will lead the alliance, the ‘united’ front will have to get the arithmetic right if it wants to take the battle to the BJP camp. It will finally boil down to marking of dominant territories and evolving a seat-sharing formula based on positions of strength. This is an area where the Opposition parties will have to do the maximum homework.
There are nine states—Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra—where regional or non-Congress forces have dominated the electoral landscape. These states account for 266 Lok Sabha seats—the BJP won just 84 (or 31 per cent) of them in 2019. Even if the Opposition forces come together in these states, they are unlikely to gain much more from here. The BJP anyway has only a marginal presence in some of them, and drew a blank in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
In fact, the challenge for the non-BJP parties will be to arrest the saffron party’s growth in these states. The states where non-BJP parties can expect to gain from 2019 are Bihar, Maharashtra and West Bengal. In Bihar and Maharashtra, the BJP has lost two allies since then—JD(U) and a section of the Shiv Sena, respectively. In Bengal, the BJP failed to keep up the momentum in the 2021 assembly polls and has seen plenty attrition since.
Back in Telangana, KCR, who is facing a determined charge on his fortress from the BJP, is growing national ambitions even as he talks of a “federal front of regional parties” to take on the saffron cohort. He wants to morph his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) into a ‘Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi’, a string of sub-regional parties in other states like Gujarat and Karnataka where Telugus have a significant presence.
While on paper, the Opposition parties have an edge in these nine states, success in 2024 will depend on how the top players in Bihar and Maharashtra—the JD(U), RJD, Congress, Sena and Nationalist Congress Party—flesh out their roles. Mamata, Nitish and Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha may dream of a post-poll alliance but have no common ground to forge one before the polls. In fact, their post-poll strength will be determined by the support—in terms of seat sharing—they receive from the Congress and RJD in their respective states.
In Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 LS seats—the highest among states—the opposition forces have failed to challenge the BJP in the past two general elections. Alliances in the past, be it the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the SP and Congress, have failed to deliver. The cornerstone of the BJP’s grand success in the previous two Lok Sabha polls was the sweep in India’s most politically significant state. Opposition unity will have no meaning if they can’t stop the BJP’s march in UP.
Similarly, in Karnataka, the only state in the south where the BJP has been able to form a government, the 2019 Lok Sabha election was a one-sided affair, with the party cornering 25 of the 28 seats. The state is heading for assembly polls next year. While the current BJP state government is beset with anti-incumbency, the Congress, depleted by internal feuds and mass defections, is yet to set its house in order.
Even bigger challenges lie in another 100 seats in six states—Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, MP and Chhattisgarh. The Congress and BJP are in direct contest here. The BJP won 97 seats in 2019, leaving only three for its rival. If the Congress cannot reverse its fortunes here in 2024, even talk of a post-poll coalition will lose meaning. With the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in states like Gujarat, the contest will be triangular, with both Congress and AAP eyeing the non-BJP vote. With AAP and Congress engaged in a bitter war of words in Delhi, Punjab and Gujarat, chances of their coming together too are slim.
These are the creases the opposition parties must iron out on the ground—and not just during photo-ops—if they are serious about putting up a united front against the BJP in 2024. The strength of a post-poll coalition will be determined by their ability to get the pre-poll electoral arithmetic right. This has been the Achilles heel of opposition parties in the past. Do they have it in them?